Sunday, July 20, 2008

New Directions in the 1940s

James Laughlin started his career as publisher in 1936 with the first New Directions in Prose & Poetry, but in addition to the flagship anthology he soon branched out into other projects, some small-scale, others remarkably ambitious for a small press (the family's steel fortune was put to excellent use). By 1941 the New Directions annual was well over 700 pages and encompassed writing by Bertolt Brecht, Delmore Schwartz, Julien Gracq, Franz Kafka, John Berryman, Ezra Pound, and many others.

The following year, well ahead of the celebrated Latin American literary “boom,” the house issued a similarly hefty bilingual Antología de la poesía americana contemporánea / Anthology of Contemporary Latin-American Poetry. Edited by the classicist Dudley Fitts, the anthology included poets like Jorge Luis Borges, Carlos Drummond de Andrade, Pablo Neruda, and Cesar Vallejo, all of whom would remain largely unknown to the American literary audience for another generation.

But New Directions didn't just think big; it also thought small, and in fact Laughlin experimented with a variety of formats, from chapbooks to subscription publishing to limited editions. Some of these experiments didn't work out and were quickly abandoned; others became long-running series with lasting influence on both publishing and literature.

The Poets of the Year series, begun in 1941, was one early New Directions series. According to Laughlin, writing many years later,
I hit on the idea of a series of 32-page pamphlets of poetry, each one printed by a different fine printer, an artist of design. It seems incredible now but I was able to sell these for fifty cents, or $5.50 for a boxed set to subscribers.
Though Laughlin was enjoined by the Book-of-the-Month Club from calling the series “the poet of the month,” the chapbooks were in fact issued on a monthly basis for the first three years (1941-1943); in 1944, the final year, wartime paper rationing caused a reduction to six issues, including the one shown here.

Once again Laughlin was ahead of the curve: Alberti, a Spanish poet then living in exile in Argentina, would remain otherwise relatively little known in the English-speaking world until the appearance of Ben Belitt's rather poor translation in the 1960s and Mark Strand's much better one in 1973. This particular volume was printed for New Directions by the Press of Henry G. Johnson; the other volumes in the final year of the series were Selected Poems of Herman Melville, “designed by” Margaret Evans; Thomas Merton's Thirty Poems, printed by the Marchbanks Press; The Soldier by Conrad Aiken (the George Grady Press); A. M. Klein's The Hitleriad (the Samuel Marcus Press); and A Little Anthology of Mexican Poets (the Printing Office of the Yale University Press). The last of those was edited by Lloyd Mallan, who also translated the Alberti. The latter is a saddle-stitched paperback, with a removable dust jacket; the books were also published hardbound, for a dollar an issue.

Below is the fourth (and final) number of a short-lived New Directions periodical called Pharos, from 1947. The version of Confucius it contains is by Ezra Pound, a New Directions mainstay from almost the beginning of the house. Not having seen the other numbers I can't be sure, but its possible that in this instance the poet's name was left off the cover (but not off the title page) because its appearance on bookstore shelves so soon after World War II might have touched a raw nerve, given Pound's flirtation with Fascism.

The text ends on page 53 (page 49 is mistakenly paginated 39), and is followed by eleven pages of ads, including a full-pager from the Gothan Book Mart. (As in the early issues of New Directions in Prose & Poetry, the ads are arguably as interesting as the editorial matter.)

According to an editor's note inside, Pharos was being phased out in favor of Direction, an example of which, from 1949, appears below:

Unlike Pharos, which was wrapped in something resembling blotter paper, the volumes in the Direction series were jacketed hardcovers, retailing for $1.50 each. This particular one is in a “pocket-size” format, roughly 4 ½ x 6 ½. Although they were available on a subscription basis, they have now crossed the line from magazine to book. Other selections listed on the jacket include Albert Guerard's Joseph Conrad, Cyril Connoly's The Rock Pool, and Nabokov's Nine Stories. Although he isn't credited, I think the jacket design may be by Alvin Lustig, who did many covers for New Directions, in particular for its successful New Classics line.

Next is a bilingual anthology that wouldn't seem like the company's typical fare; in fact you could easily miss the fact that it was a New Directions book at all, since the only place that it's identified as such is at the bottom corner of the front flap of the dust jacket.

The jacket itself is unusual, having been made of some kind of transparent plastic, possibly acetate. The lettering you see is not on the boards but on the acetate (if that's what it is); the illustration, however, is on the book. According to the colophon, “three thousand copies of this book were printed in April MCMXLIX by the University Press in Cambridge, Massachusetts.” There are some nice illustrations inside, and the spine is ornamented with a decorative motif. It sold for $7.50, rather pricey at the time.

Finally, a more enduring literary monument (if an ambivalent one), sized to match. Here is an early (but not first) printing of Pound's collected Cantos, published in 1948.

The book, which sold for $5.00, is confusingly paginated, as each succeeding section starts the numbering afresh, and there's no table of contents. In later editions, at least since the 1970s, the dust jacket has been changed to a reddish-orange color, the typography has been redone, and the drawing of the poet (by Gaudier-Brzeska) no longer appears.

In my experience, innovative literary presses tend to follow a certain generational pattern. Companies like New Directions, Grove Press, Black Sparrow, the Ecco Press, or the original North Point Press — each of them closely identified with one or two innovative founders — find a niche in the marketplace with some fresh ideas, publishing authors and kinds of books that aren't being represented by the mainstream houses. A decade or two later the ideas are widely imitated or just don't seem that interesting anymore and the house, if it survives, gets absorbed by a major publisher or just settles into tame old age.

By most standards, New Directions under James Laughlin had a longer run than most. By the time I started reading New Directions books, in the early 1970s, the press had settled on the handsome and serviceable look of the New Directions Paperbook line.

It was a superb series in many ways, but the kind of experimentation with format the house conducted in its midcentury heyday was mostly in the past. Today, after Laughlin's death in 1997, New Directions continues to uphold a fine publishing tradition but it's no longer groundbreaking in the way it was in its first decades.

Update (January 2009): When I wrote the above I was not aware of Geoffrey Connell's translation of Alberti's Sobre los angeles (Concerning the Angels), which was published by Rapp and Carroll in 1967 and which also appeared, apparently in full, in — where else? — New Directions 19 in 1966.

Update (December 2013): New Directions is now revisiting some of its innovative marketing ideas, in the form of poetry and prose chapbook subscriptions. Hats off to them.

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